Our view: increasing the standards on higher education

Gov. Ted Strickland and Chancellor Eric Fingerhut have a vision for Ohio. They want to enroll more students, keep more money in their pockets, help them make it to graduation and get them jobs in the state once they finish.

It’s hard to find fault with that.

Since Strickland entered office, he has time and time again made promises to improve the education system in Ohio, from primary and secondary schools through higher education. And, unlike many politicians, he has made strides toward fulfilling his promises. In his first year, he increased the amount of state funding for the lower levels of school and instated a tuition freeze for colleges and universities.

On Monday, Fingerhut came out with the administration’s 10-year plan to overhaul higher education through the University System of Ohio. Under it, Ohio’s public universities and their regional branches, community colleges, medical college and literacy and workforce centers will work together to create an overreaching state system of higher education, making it easier for students to find a school nearby, wherever they are, and transferring between the campuses simpler.

Each university will identify its strongest points and cultivate those as “centers of excellence,” reducing competition for limited resources between schools and giving them a clear focus for their funding. Schools can set their own tuition, but are encouraged to keep it low.

High school students will also be encouraged to begin their college education while still in high school in order to give them a head start on the process that has only gotten longer and, therefore, more costly, in recent years.

This plan has some lofty goals, but it’s good to aim high. Ohio has consistently been one of the highest-cost states when it comes to higher education, and keeping the price tag low will make it easier for students who want to attend college to do so. It’s also a good idea to improve the education opportunities available through community colleges and regional campuses. Ohio already has a huge number of higher education facilities across the state, but unifying them is likely to ensure a quality education at any location.

But despite the positives, there are also potential downsides to the plan. The idea of “centers of excellence” is a bit unsettling. Having strong programs is a definite asset to a university, but so is having a variety of programs available to students. For students who know what they want to study before they enroll, a “center of excellence” set-up works. They can apply to that particular school and know they will get a great education in the field they love.

But for students who aren’t yet sure what they want to pursue, this system may lead to semesters of frustration and confusion. They can investigate their interests at a community college or regional branch, sure, but then they lose the traditional college experience of living on campus and getting involved freshman year. Those who opt to move to a school but end up changing what they want to pursue might have to transfer, leaving their friends and school spirit behind.

When many potential students are deciding what application booklets to fill out and send in, they take more than just academic programs and tuition costs into consideration. Even if we only take the 13 public universities into account, the personalities of each varies from campus to campus, and that can’t be watered down into a universal experience. Fingerhut and Strickland need to make sure they don’t over-institutionalize Ohio’s colleges. There’s a lot to be lost in terms of student experience if we lose our individual identities.

The above editorial is the consensus opinion of the Daily Kent Stater editorial board.